Erwin Helfer Resurfaces with New CD, Instructional Book

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Helfer has long given children and adults lessons in the living room of his home.

(Photo: Marc PoKempner)

Blues, boogie, jazz and American roots pianist Erwin Helfer is the unlikely but grateful poster boy for survival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having been hospitalized in spring 2020 for a severe depression brought on by enforced isolation, he was saved by electroconvulsive therapy — a.k.a., shock treatment. In January 2022 he celebrated his 86th birthday at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, following the release of his new band album, Celebrate The Journey, and an instructional book, Blues Piano and How to Play It.

“There were three reasons I fell into that dark hole,” Helfer explained in a phone interview. “First off, I couldn’t play.” Up until music venues were shuttered against the spread of disease, he’d been gigging weekly, solo and with a band. “Secondly, I couldn’t teach.” Helfer has long given children and adults lessons in the living room of his home on a street that the city has designated as “Erwin Helfer Way.” Myra Melford, a former student of whom he’s especially proud, often credits his early lessons as foundational. “Third, I couldn’t access my finances.”

Although fiscally secure, Helfer was not adept at online banking, typically riding his bicycle to his nearby branch to do business. That was no longer possible, either. At home alone, he slipped into unfounded fears and a whirlpool of delusions. Friends, including Steven Dolins, principal of The Sirens Records, which has issued several of Helfer’s albums and published his book, were increasingly alarmed by his uncharacteristic pessimism, cycle of despair and lapses in self-care. They got him into Rush Memorial Hospital, where he spent six weeks and underwent 11 separate electroshock sessions.

“I was scheduled for 12, but I didn’t need the last one,” Erwin explains. He returned to a clean house and new housemate, singer Katherine Davis, who’s worked locally and toured internationally with the pianist. She brought a cat and dog with her — a boon to Helfer, an animal lover.

Although at first Helfer declined to play, feeling he’d lost motivation and his chops were down. But the music that he has immersed himself in since he was a high school student in the early 1950s drew him back. A television newscaster had arranged for a piano to be in the studio where he interviewed Helfer. Erwin wandered over to it, sat down and played a song. The feeling was there, and the pianist was encouraged. As opportunities gradually opened in 2021, he resumed both teaching and performing, including a semi-regular schedule at the Hungry Brain, a dive bar run by drummer-composer Mike Reed and cornetist Josh Berman.

Onstage, Helfer is an outgoing and original entertainer. He revisits classic repertoire such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sweet Substitute” and Avery Parrish’s “After Hours,” re-energizes standards like “Swanee River” with an upbeat treatment, digs into showpieces including “Pinetop’s Boogie” and sprinkles in corny jokes as well as his own compositions, such as “Daydreaming,” that imbue blues forms with influences he’s absorbed from Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartók and Thelonious Monk, as well as Jimmy Yancey (“The Mozart of the blues,” Helfer calls him) and Otis Spann. In his hands, the disparate threads flow naturally. The organic nature of his artistry is genuine, developed over a lifetime of apprenticeship, appreciation and practice.

Born into a family that enjoyed weekend musical parties — “My father was a very good washtub bassist,” he recalls — Helfer was picking out tunes by ear in his teens, and became a protégé of Bill Russell, a co-author of Jazzmen (the first American book on New Orleans’ early players), an avant-garde classical composer, record store owner, record producer, violinist and collector of ephemera eventually published in the encyclopedia scrapbook Oh, Mr. Jelly. Through Russell, Helfer met players who’d been at jazz’s birth, like the drummer Baby Dodds.

Enrolling in Tulane University in New Orleans (where Russell had relocated), Helfer became friends with early jazz artists such as trumpeter De De Pierce and his pianist-singer wife Wilhelmina Madson Goodson, known as Billie Pierce. In 1957, he featured her along with Doug Suggs, James “The Bat” Robinson and rediscovered St. Louis-based boogie master Speckled Red on Primitive Piano, produced on his own Tone Records. It was the first of several projects Helfer initiated, convening blues and boogie players Blind John Davis, Willie Mabon, Sunnyland Slim and Jimmy Walker for Heavy Timbre, Barrelhouse Chuck, Detroit Junior and Pinetop Perkins for 8 Hands On 88 Keys.

He considers himself primarily self-taught. Although he received a bachelor of arts from the American Conservatory of Music, which closed in 1991, and a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University (“I enrolled because I’d gotten bored listening to myself”), Helfer had made his professional debut while still in high school, substituting for Little Brother Montgomery as accompanist for Mama Estelle Yancy, Jimmy Yancy’s widow. Their collaboration inspired one of his signature compositions, “Stella,” and continued until her death at age 90 in 1986. In 1983, they recorded a duet album, Maybe I’ll Cry.

But Erwin had long since expanded his blues activities. During the ’60s he had given piano lessons to harmonica-playing bandleader Paul Butterfield, recorded the single “Drunken Boat”/“Whole Lotta Soul,” written by Nick Gravenites with avant garde breaks by AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and tried new technology on Chess Records’ Moogie Woogie (which he deplores). He played with Mississippi delta guitarist Big Joe Williams and folk singer Barbara Dane, brought guitarist Eddie Taylor, one-armed harmonicist John Wrencher and a weekly puppet show to a popular Lincoln Avenue bar, and dipped into the Great American Songbook for his first solo album, On The Sunny Side Of The Street, with soprano saxophonist Clark Dean, legendary drummers S.P. Leary and Odie Payne, and bassists Truck Parnham, Eddie Calhoun and Betty Dupree.

Helfer’s discography has continued to grow, with seven albums since 2002 from The Sirens Records documenting his solos, trios and larger ensembles tackling compositions by Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Fats Waller, among others. Celebrate The Journey has him leading a group with matched tenor saxophonists John Brumbach and Skinny Williams. Blues Piano and How To Play It is a comprehensive instructional volume, useful for players of all levels, detailing basics and nuances, all underwritten by his dictum that “the best way to learn to play blues and jazz is by ‘hanging out’ with the people who play it and listening obsessively to recordings of the music.”

Such was the pianist’s blues-boogie-jazz-roots education, which he has enabled newcomers to similarly pursue when he’s at the piano bench at home, teaching at the annual Augusta Heritage Center blues camp in Elkins, West Virginia, on tours in Europe, or playing parties and benefits for progressive causes in Chicago. The extreme depression he suffered through and the unusual health care that healed him seem to have left no lasting ill effects. A sweet-tempered and modest man, he’s booking appearances into the future. His blues express the range of emotions from sadness to joy. He summarizes his experiences simply. “I feel real lucky,” the pianist says. Listeners share that luck when they tune into Erwin Helfer’s music. DB



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